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The Jovial Ghosts
The Misadventures of Topper
Such a Restful Place!
MID-AFTERNOON on a back country road. Shadows from close-pressing trees cast scrolls across the dust. An automobile snakes gracefully past a farm waggon and disappears round a bend in the road. With a disturbed expression in his eyes, the driver of the waggon gazes after the vanished automobile. Presently he sighs deeply, and gathering up the reins in a preoccupied manner urges his team onward. Little profit, he decides, in idle speculation. What he has just seen he has not seen. That was the only satisfactory way out of it. In spite of this philosophic conclusion the man knew in his heart that the driving seat of the automobile had been unoccupied, and that the machine had performed a difficult passing apparently unaided by any human guidance. He never spoke of the incident to any of his friends. The mere thought of it gave him a helpless feeling. But the memory lay buried in his heart, and to his dying day it remained a mystifying and inexplicable fact, but nevertheless a fact.
A few miles down the road the automobile had halted in a clearing. From the automobile emerged a red cape and hat accompanied by several bundles. This singular group, after a moment's hesitation, disappeared into the woods. Presently from the automobile drifted a blue cloud of smoke. The smoke had in turn drifted from Mr. Topper. He was smoking one of his favourite cigars and feeling quite set up about it. In spite of her momentary weakness in the department store, Marion Kerby had succeeded in restoring him to a high state of good humour. So much so, in fact, that he had permitted her to drive the car. It had been a secret relief to him. He had sat and rested his nerves.
"I know every road in the state," she had said. "Let's get off the beaten track."
"By all means," he had answered. "As far off as possible."
Now Mr. Topper sat smoking and comfortably considering life. He was far off the beaten track and soothed by a feeling of security. After all, he mused, Marion Kerby was not so hopeless as at times he had considered her to be. Unscrupulous she was, to be sure, and unreliable to a fault, but just the same she was an amusing companion. What experiences he had been through since he had first met her. What mad, unbelievable adventures. And he, the staid Topper, had played a part in them. Almost too prominent a part, he thought, as he leaned back with a smile and fondly eyed his cigar. Then, as if from the sting of a wasp, he straightened up. Hadn't she told him the previous night that her husband might return at any moment? It was an alarming thought. Topper knew he was blameless, but would George Kerby take a similar view of the situation? Marion had deliberately wished herself on an upright man. Any reasonable person would quickly understand that. However, George Kerby was not a reasonable person. Anything but that. Charming and generous he might be, but certainly not reasonable. Topper moved uneasily and glanced at the woods.
"Marion," he called in a subdued voice.
"Presently," came the cheerful reply. "Just a minute now."
It was slightly more than a minute before the hat and cape came out of the woods, but Mr. Topper felt well repaid for waiting. The looted garments were now splendidly filled by a sprightly young woman whose disturbing eyes impertinently mocked at Topper from beneath the brim of an exceedingly smart red hat. Mr. Topper, observing her with approval, had to admit that she had stolen with discrimination.
"You look great," he said with eloquent inadequacy.
"Do you think so?" she asked. "I'm just as pretty all over. Want to see? Everything's so new."
"Don't," exclaimed Mr. Topper. "You're always trying to upset me."
"Very well," she replied, getting into the car, "but just the same I am. I'm very pleased with me."
"Then don't be childish."
"I'd like to be," she sighed. "It was so lovely there in the woods."
"And you were the loveliest thing in them," Mr. Topper replied, in site of himself.
For an answer she violently embraced him, smiting his cheek with a kiss. Topper, highly indignant, managed to free himself.
"Every time I say a kind word to you," he complained, "you practically assault me."
"But I receive so few kind words," she explained. "And I'm terribly impulsive."
"Then try to appreciate my position," admonished Mr. Topper, "and try to respect it. And while we are on the subject, when do you expect your husband back? Last night you said . . ."
"Oh, that was just to frighten you," she interrupted. "George won't be back for months, and even if he did return he'd never find us where we're going."
"Where's that?" asked Topper with interest.
"I'll show you presently."
"Not presently, but instantly," he urged. "Let's go there without delay. I long for peace and quiet."
Marion Kerby took the wheel and, after several hours of what seemed to Mr. Topper to be exceedingly obscure driving, they paused on the crest of a high hill before taking the dip into the valley below. Far across the intervening space, many green leagues away, Topper saw the setting sun sending its streams of colours across a field ofdeepening blue. The clouds seemed like castles with ramparts edged with gold. There was turmoil in the sky. Cohorts of silver and scarlet charged down the west and assaulted the castle clouds. And in the vast confusion of the sunset Mr. Topper saw, low to the horizon, dim lights drifting behind the trees. Both Topper and his companion watched this kaleidoscopic overthrow of nature with deep, thoughtful eyes, a little touched with the melancholy appreciation of those who look too long upon the sun at its setting. Topper moved a cramped leg and looked at the girl beside him.
"It's quite good," he remarked diffidently. "What do you think?"
"Don't ask me what I think," she replied. Then with a shrug of her shoulders, "I find the damn thing garish."
"It struck me, too, as being a trifle overdone." She threw him a quick smile and pressed his hand.
"Remember the last one we saw together?"
Topper made no reply, but looked unhappily at his shoes. He had a feeling inside of being quite lost. He attributed it to hunger, but strangely enough he was wishing that for once in his life he had fallen desperately and forgetfully in love. It was like trying to trace a vague perfume to its source. Once in the lobby of a hotel a woman had passed Mr. Topper's chair. After she had gone there remained behind a subtle, disturbing fragrance. Mr. Topper had failed to notice the woman, but he had become keenly aware of the perfume lingering in the air. It was floating round him now. Why had he not risen and followed the woman instead of sitting troubled by the faint breath of romance? Why had he always lost himself in the evening paper instead of looking over its edge for possible adventures? Had Mrs. Topper anything to do with it? Perhaps. He remembered that on this occasion he had been patiently waiting for her. Romance? No go, there. She had arrived with voluble indigestion and a secret craving for food. In propitiating the one and appeasing the other, the desire for romance and adventure had collapsed in Mr. Topper's heart. Instead of following a haunting fragrance he had followed his wife through the tube, while listening to the trials of an unsuccessful shopping day.
With a start he came back to his surroundings and glanced down at the small brown hand resting lightly on his rather fleshy one. At his glance the hand was quickly withdrawn and Topper was surprised to see two spots of pink appear on Marion Kerby's cheeks. He had not believed it possible. Even now he was suspicious. She was probably plotting some crime.
"Don't look at me like that," she said.
"Like what?" Topper asked.
"Like a thwarted pup," she answered. " A pup bereft of milk. I never could stand hungry eyes."
"Are mine hungry?"
"Well, so am I. It's been a full day, but we've succeeded in remaining rather empty. When and where do we eat?"
"Do you see that lake down there?" she asked, pointing to the valley.
"I do now," he replied, "but I hadn't noticed it before. It looks so lost among the trees."
"That's just what it is," she answered. "Years ago that little lake strayed away from its mother, and ever since then these hills have been nursing it here in secret. And every year the mother lake sends the streams and rivers in search of her lost lakelet, but these hills, which are inclined to be barren, consider the foundling as theirs and jealously keep it locked away in the valley."
"Well," remarked Mr. Topper, after a short pause, "now that you've about rung the change on that theme, let's go down and take a look at this lost lake of yours. Perhaps there's some food to be found."
"No doubt there is, you prosaic beast," the girl replied as she started the machine. "There used to be a store at one end."
As the car descended the winding way the road grew deeper in shadows, and when they reached the border of the lake a dim film of daylight still lingered over its still surface as if reluctant to leave this quiet spot.
To Mr. Topper the lake seemed truly lost. And everything about the place partook of the same atmosphere. On its shores he could distinguish only a few cottages, and even these had an abandoned look about them. He felt that they must have crept away from some populous summer colony and hidden themselves among the trees to rest. About half-way up the opposite hill a large stone house cut a breach in the trees. A few lights twinkled in the upper windows, these golden specks of life serving only to intensify the solitude of the scene. For the first time in his life Mr. Topper felt really secure from the world and all its works. In such a place as this Marion Kerby could do her worst without disturbing his peace of mind. It occurred to Mr. Topper that it would be a delightful sensation to strip himself naked and go running through the trees, to feel the night on his body and to meet the earth like a free, unabashed creature of the earth. This was a radical thought for Mr. Topper, and happily, some may feel, a passing one. It left him slightly sobered.
"Have you ever been here before?" he asked, sensing the precarious condition of his mind.
"Didn't I just tell you?" she answered. "I've been here lots of times. I used to come here to hide from George when he got on my nerves."
"God grant that we may be as successful this time," Mr. Topper breathed with unfeigned sincerity.
"Don't worry your head about him," she replied carelessly. "He's probably sound asleep in some low café at this very minute. We'll drive down to the other end in search of food and shelter."
"Is there some sort of an inn about?"
"No, but the cottages look deserted."
Mr. Topper did not entertain with enthusiasm the prospect of breaking into a deserted cottage, but as the only other alternative lay in sleeping in the automobile he held his peace.
At the end of the lake they found a small shop from which they purchased provisions of a compressed nature. By the time they had completed their transactions under the suspicious eye of the shopkeeper daylight had faded from the face of the lake. A world of stars looked down on them and showered the dark water with a spray of golden coins, which danced and sparkled whenever a breeze moved from the shore.
"We'll have to park the car on this side," Marion Kerby said in a low voice. "The road ends here. We can walk round to the cottages by the path."
They arranged the automobile for the night and Mr. Topper, taking a suit-case in either hand, followed his guide along a root-filled path. From time to time he tripped and cursed bitterly, but Marion Kerby urged him on to greater efforts with derisive words of encouragement. After passing two cottages steeped in shadows, she selected the third and more imposing one. Leaving Topper perspiring on the veranda with his luggage, she disappeared in the darkness. After what seemed to him an eternity of time he was startled to hear the door opening stealthily behind him.
"It's all jake," Marion whispered. "I found a reasonable window. Bring in the bags. This is a swish abode."
"It may be swish to you," he grumbled, stumbling in with the bags, "but to me it's far from homelike. We don't even know the owners."
"Would you like to meet them?" she asked from the darkness.
"Not at this minute," he admitted, dropping the bags to the floor. "Light up and let's see where we are."
With the lighting of a candle the house sprang into terrifying reality to Mr. Topper. Every corner contained a shadow and every shadow contained a possible danger. But Marion Kerby was delighted. The house, after a swift investigation, proved to be in a fair state of order. There were beds and they were ready to receive occupants. Other equipment was present. Most gratifying of all there was an oil stove all ready to fulfill its destiny. These discoveries which, to Marion Kerby, were occasions for congratulation were, to Mr. Topper, sources of dismay. As Marion flitted cheerfully round the place he edged towards the door.
"Stop chirping like that! " he exclaimed at last. "It's all clear to me. The owners have just gone out. They'll be back at any moment. Let's go."
"You'd make a dangerous detective," she answered. "Doesn't your nose tell you that this place hasn't been open since last summer? Look at this glass. It's dusty. And the table. I could write your name on it."
"Don't," said Mr. Topper. "Write yours. I require no publicity."
"Come back here then and sit down," she replied. "I'm going to air out the beds in our room."
Mr. Topper looked at her in blank astonishment.
"Do you mean to tell me," he finally managed to get out, "that in spite of all the beds in this house you're so depraved as to insist on sleeping with me?"
"I just thought it would be more fun."
"Fun," he repeated. "What has that to do with it? It might be fun to live in a harem, but right-thinking men don't do it. Fun fills the divorce courts and digs untimely graves. Anyway, under the circumstances, I don't feel funny."
"Why don't you get up on the table and preach down at me?" she jeered. "Bring me back to the fold. Point the way to salvation."
"You should know more about the hereafter than I do," he remarked moodily.
She came over to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. He stepped back and tried to avoid her eyes.
"Now don't begin to coax me," he said. "I won't hear a word of it. It was bad enough before you materialised, but now it is utterly out of the question. Absolutely."
"Oh, give me a kiss," was all she said, and she took it.
Topper, though remarkably pleased, remained adamant, and after a certain amount of haggling they arrived at a compromise. They would occupy connecting rooms. Topper thought that that was compromising enough.
"You know," she explained to him, "it's better that I should sleep close by so that I can protect you in case somebody comes."
This last argument struck Mr. Topper with so much force that he was tempted to ask her to disregard his previous objections. His conventional training, however, overcame his natural timidity.
While Marion Kerby was preparing a supper of soup, beans and coffee he watched her with a mixture of admiration and dread. And when at last she placed the provender before him, dread faded away and only admiration remained. Truly she was a remarkable woman for one so loose. He thought of his wife and sighed. Then his thoughts reverted to Scollops. He wondered how life was treating his cat, and whether or not she still slept in his chair. While wondering he ate diligently with the appetite of a famished man. Food had never meant so much to Mr. Topper. Presently he halted and looked up from his plate.
"Do you like cats?" he asked.
Before his companion had time to answer Mr. Topper's jaw dropped, his face changed colour, and with dilated eyes he gazed over her shoulder. For a moment she was too startled to complete her chewing. Then she rose from her chair and hurried to him.
"Are you choking?" she asked. "Can't you swallow?"
And with this she began to pound him on the back. Mr. Topper almost fell from his chair.
"I'm not choking," he gasped, "but I can't swallow. Oh, look!"
Marion was too alarmed to heed his words. She stopped thumping and began to tear at his shirt.
"I'll open your collar," she said, "and then you'll feel better."
At this Mr. Topper returned to speech.
"Hell, no! " he shouted. "Don't open my collar. Open a window instead. He's standing in the doorway right behind you."
In an instant the situation was clear to Marion Kerby. Slowly and with great dignity she turned and beheld a rough-looking individual standing exactly where Mr. Topper had said, in the door-way. In one hand he held a lantern, in the other an ugly-looking stick.
"Will you be good enough to tell me just what you are doing here?" she asked in a calm voice.
The man hesitated and looked at her with a surprised expression.
"Protecting the master's property," he replied. "He don't allow squatters here."
"Squatters," she replied in a puzzled voice.
"Squatters? Now what exactly are squatters? Sounds like some sort of a pigeon, or perhaps a fish. Are squatters fish?"
"If yer don't understand what squatters is," said the man, "I'll change it to housebreakers, trespassers, undesirable people, thieves, loafers or—"
"It's quite clear," interrupted the girl. "Don't go on. Now tell me who is the master you referred to?
He's Mr. Wilbur," the man replied.
"And where is he now?"
"He's in Europe, that's where he is."
"How odd!" she mused. "So is my husband."
"I'm her brother," put in Mr. Topper in consternation. "Her eldest brother. We're nice people and—."
The man glared at Mr. Topper and raised his stick threateningly. Mr. Topper sank back in his chair.
"Leave this to me," Marion whispered quickly, then advanced on the unwelcome visitor.
"For some unfortunate reason," she said, "I haven't taken a fancy to you. It might not be your fault. I hope it isn't, but the fact remains that now you must go. Take your little lantern and swagger stick and hop off. If not, God protect you."
"Quit yer bluffing," replied the man, "or I'll use this club on the both of yer."
Then a strange and terrible thing took place. The woman, facing the intruder, crumpled to the floor. Nothing remained of her save an inert bundle of clothing. Even Mr. Topper, as accustomed as he was to unexpected occurrences, sat horrified in his chair. The man looked down at the clothing and strove to collect his wits.
"She's fainted," he suggested, looking hopefully at Topper.
Mr. Topper began to laugh hysterically.
"What's that?" asked the man suddenly as his hat snapped down over his eyes. He raised his hands to his hat, then quickly transferred them to his stomach. As the stick fell to the floor it was seized by an invisible hand and brandished in the air. With great force and accuracy it descended on the now prominent region of his reverse exposure, causing him to snap erect. His face was a study in terror as he fell on his hands and knees and began to crawl to the door.
"Here's your lantern! " a voice cried. "Clear out quick!"
The voice was too much for the man. He staggered to his feet and without waiting for the lantern fled from the cottage; the lantern, following in close pursuit, danced crazily in the darkness. Mr. Topper could trace the retreat of the man by the crashing of the bushes and the cries that disturbed the night. Gradually these sounds subsided and silence settled down. Some minutes later the bundle of clothing began to stir. Mr. Topper saw a confused mass of feminine apparel arrange itself in the air and assume the outlines of a woman. He closed his eyes to blot out the sight, and when he opened them again Marion Kerby was standing before him.
"What were you saying about cats?" she asked, seating herself on the table.
"I don't know," said Mr. Topper. "Was I saying anything about cats?"
"It doesn't matter," she replied. "That bird won't be back to-night. I couldn't get him to take his lantern so I was forced to throw it at him."
She slid over to the dejected Topper and, curving an arm round his shoulder, sat heavily on his lap. Too weak to protest, he allowed her to sip his coffee.
"I doubt if he ever comes back," she added reflectively.
"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Topper uneasily. "I hope you didn't kill him or maim him for life. Did you?"
"Not quite," she replied. "Almost, though. He called us squatters. I don't mind about myself, but I can't bear to think of you as a squatter."
"I don't mind being called a squatter," said Mr. Topper thoughtfully, "but I couldn't stand that club of his. Every time I looked at the thing it gave me the shivers. There were knobs on it."
Marion Kerby jumped from his knees and squeezed his hand.
"Don't think of him any more," she said. "Let's go outside and contemplate the stars."
"I hope that's all we'll contemplate," replied Mr. Topper.
They sat on the steps of the veranda and Marion rested her head on Mr. Topper's knee. Once more he thought of Scollops. Then he looked down into the girl's eyes and saw that in them, too, there was an expression he could not fathom, but on this occasion he was thrilled instead of being troubled.
"You know," she remarked, smiling up at him, "you're not my eldest brother. You're my first and only child."
"Well, from the way you're bringing me up," he replied, "you must be one of those Spartan mothers I read about in school."
"Certainly I am," she answered. "I'll make a man of you yet."
"Then keep the door open between us," said Mr. Topper. "I'm feeling far from well. If I dream about clubs to-night I'm likely to die in my sleep."
He lit a cigar and looked down on the lake. "Nice night," he suggested.
"Great," she replied, snuggling closer to him. "I'll try a cigar, too."
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